Maverick reproductive scientist Panayiotis Zavos repeated his intention to clone a human being before a US Congressional committee hearing on Wednesday - but he admitted that he may not be the first to do so. "There is every indication that 2002 will be the year of the clones," said Zavos, director of the Andrology Institute of America in Lexington, Kentucky. He was testifying before a hearing on the medical science and bioethics of cloning.
Legislation under consideration by the US government could ban all research on cloned human embryos, for research or reproductive purposes. Zavos argues that the best way to deal with the risks of human cloning is to legalise and regulate it.
Zavos and his former colleague, the controversial Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori, became media superstars in 2001 when they claimed they had assembled a team of scientists and doctors who would clone a baby by the end of 2002. The pair insisted that enough had been learned from animal cloning experiments to safely proceed with human cloning. The vast majority of cloning experts disagree, pointing to the extremely low efficiency of the technique and the known health problems of clones.
China and Russia
But the two would-be cloners have recently gone their separate ways. When Zavos was asked about Antinori's recent claim that he knew of three women who were pregnant with clones, Zavos calmly dismissed them. " I don't believe those reports from Rome, no. Obviously I have my reasons for that," he said. And Zavos gave the impression his team had not established any pregnancies, either. While that would rule out making a 2002 deadline for Antinori and himself, Zavos suggested that other unnamed researchers might beat them to the punch. He said there are five teams in the world trying to clone a human being.
"I am familiar with what the Chinese, the Russians and the Europeans are doing," he said. "I know of several teams that are making a great deal of progress on this issue."
Beyond moral objections, experts say human cloning still represents a huge technical hurdle. In November 2001, the Massachusetts biotech company Advanced Cell Technology published the first account of a human cloning experiment aimed at deriving stem cells for therapy - and those researchers only managed to grow the embryo to a handful of cells.
In March 2002, Chinese researchers conducting similar experiments claimed to have matured a cloned human embryo to more than 100 cells. But those experiments have yet to be published or repeated by other groups.
16 May 2002
Reproduced for Educational Purposes Pursuant to Title 17, Section 107, of the US Code
Finally, the latest on the political front:
Moratorium Replaces Ban as U.S. Target by David Malakoff
Biomedical research advocates appear to have won a major victory in the U.S. Senate. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) last week announced that he was abandoning his efforts to persuade the Senate to pass a bill outlawing all human cloning - including some types of research aimed at developing new medical treatments. Instead, Brownback says he will work to win congressional approval for a 2-year moratorium on such work. But critics say even that step would cause unacceptable delays for studies that could result in important medical benefits.
Science advocates are pleased with the latest turn of events, but they don't plan to pack up and go home. 'We've made great progress, but there is a very long way to go,' says Kevin Wilson of the American Society for Cell Biology, one of many research groups opposing Brownback's bill. And Brownback's allies, who just months ago seemed likely to prevail, promise that 'the issue isn't going to go away. There is going to be a sort of guerilla campaign now,' says Nigel Cameron of the Council for Biotechnology Policy, a conservative think tank in